Monday, 31 December 2012

Best of 2012

Hoo-hah! What a year, amirite? I hope it's been as good for you as it's been for me. In retrospect, I can see that 2011 in particular was a great movie year, since so much of its best flooded our Finnish cinemas this past year. I've yet to see so many films that were produced this year that I don't really know about 2012, but I got a very good hunch about it. A surprisingly good amount of fine films made my shortlist to make one of these top lists for your pleasure.

Keep in mind that I only include films that got their premieres during 2012 in Finland. That's why the list may include films produced in 2011, or even 2010. Festival and straight-to-dvd -lists will follow later on.

To be seen top 5: Deep Blue SeaFaust, Magic Mike, Pirates!, The Snows of Kilimanjaro


This year, it was so hard to choose which films to raise to the top 12, that I included no fewer than ten runners up. Rather than to have a few words of explanation, for the most part I'm going to allow the reviews of these films speak for themselves. The runners up are:

The Artist
The Cabin in the Woods
Canned Dreams (Säilöttyjä unelmia)
Call Girl
Cosmopolis - The smartest film of the year by far, but perhaps a tad too analytical to be enjoyable. I wrote a review in Finnish for Elitisti.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Moonrise Kingdom
We Need to Talk About Kevin

The top 12 films released in 2012

12. Skyfall (USA/UK)
Director: Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes balanced the nigh-impossible odds of bringing the fun back to Bond without sacrificing too much of the feet-on-the-ground approach people have enjoyed in Craig's previous outings (well, in Casino Royale at least). Sure, there are several gaping plot-holes and odd character decisions, but keep in mind that this is a film series about a secret agent that tells everyone his real name, and saves the world from domination by being really, really good at poker. Now, while there are komodo dragon-jumping and bazar motocross scenes a-plenty, the threat of violence and death makes the film exciting.

Much of the thanks belongs to DoP Roger Deakins, whose stunning work has created one of the most visually striking blockbusters in a long while.

(few minor spoilers ahead)

A lot of people have problems with the final act of the film, which I can't understand. It's good for the Bond franchise to try something new once in a while. Plus, it has a lot of my favorite parts: Bond's reaction shot when the main villain explodes his car,  the montage of Bond booby-trapping chandeliers and floor-boards with cluster bombs, "Welcome to Scotland", that helicopter explosion...

11. Wuthering Heights (UK)
Director: Andrea Arnold

As you might guess, costume dramas really aren't my cup of tea. but when one is done in such a unique way as Andrea Arnold has here, I'm bound to take notice. A silent, meditative look at inner turmoils, Arnold bases much of the emphasis on nature, how it withers and dies away each year yet comes back the next spring.

The story of Heathcliff (James Howson / Solomon Glave), his thirst for vengeance for those that mocked and punished him as a child, the whole class system, and his doomed love with Catharine Earnshaw (Kaya Scodelario / Shannon Beer) has all the weight and melodrama you'd expect from such a story. The reason this film is ranked so low is the overflow of this super-intense relationship drama into ridiculousness in the final act. But the slow, meditative opening is still mesmerizing.

10. The Descendants (USA)
Director: Alexander Payne

Not the best film in Payne's resumé, but even the least-good Payne is better than the best Wes Anderson film (Moonrise Kingdom). The Descendants is still a funny, tragic and heart-warming film, and earnest in a way very few such high-profile American films can manage to be. Clooney's fake tear nonwithstanding. Back in February, I wrote:

The Descendants is more melancholy-filled than funny. Altough it does offer a few hilarious scenes as well. By first glance the film's characters are clichéd, but Payne has written the film intelligently enough to give each of them some surprising depth, and making them integral to the story he's unfolding. It also allows him to have various different viewpoints into one tragedy, and ways of coping with it. 

9. Argo (USA)
Director: Ben Affleck

A surprise final-minute addition to the list, but Argo managed to be one of the year's most exciting films. The super-intense thriller about rescuing American ambassadors from the Ayatollah's Iran in 1980 reaches almost Hitchcock-levels in building up tensions and letting the viewer worry about the outcome. Ben Affleck has grown better and better with each of his directing duties. This nails-to-the seats thriller pines for the days America solved international conflicts creatively, instead of resorting to violence, arrogance and civilian casualities. It's also a tribute to the hands-on approach to filmmaking, craftsmanship and B-movies of old. Really, how could you dislike a movie, where Michael Parks cameos as comics master Jack Kirby?

The film does depict iranians as straight-up villains (although it lays the groundwork on why they are so upset of America's policies, what with all the hated Shah's protection and spying). As such, it probably won't do any favors for the already icy relationship between USA and Iran. But Affleck does offer as apolitical approach to the historical subject as is possible in such a real-life situation. The final scenes have little to do with reality, but as a climax to the tension, as well as a tribute to the little-cheesy American blockbusting filmmaking the movie celebrates, it works.

8. Rust & Bone (De Rouille et d'Os; France/Belgium)
Director: Jacques Audiard

Again, not the director's best work, but dang if this very physical love story couldn't touch the viewer like few other films could. Just in November, I wrote:

(The film is) shot at times as naturally as to be almost like a nature documentary about the hard knock lives of these people. Audiard is as masterful in compressing everything that needs to be said in just a few sentences as Aki Kaurismäki. One also has to give due to the magnificent actors. Cotillard and Schoenaerts are at career-best form here, taking their abilities for emotional performances and imposing physicality (respectively) to whole new heights.

For those awaiting a clear love story, the film might be too distant, even cold. For those awaiting for the brutally violent boxing matches, they are quite sidelined and only featured in two bigger scenes. But for anyone looking for a good drama that makes one ponder about the human vunerability, and how it affects our own humanity, this is a bullseye.

7. Take This Waltz (Canada/Spain/Japan)
Director: Sarah Polley

Another devastating "romance" film, although much in a different way. It is also a comedy of sorts, with a lot of jokes opening up only in symbolism and perhaps opens even better at subsequent viewings. The film isn't afraid to position some very difficult questions like how far do we have the right to pursue our own love and happiness. Blinded by her emotions as she is by the light in the very first scene, Michelle Williams's Margot ends up peeing in the pool of all of her closest friends and new family. And at first tormented, she ends up enjoying doing it for a while. But the rudest awakening is in store for her.

The script is expertly crafted, with call-backs and payoffs to short scenes we almost forgot about in this rollercoaster ride of emotions. The lighting, the music choices, the acting... it all works. The film's symbolism is quite telegraphed, and easy to follow (as with the runners-up list's We Need To Talk About Kevin), but in these cases it's not an entirely bad thing. The year's feel-bad relationship movie.

6. The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan maut, Indonesia/USA)
Director: Gareth Evans

Aw, c'mon. You really didn't think I was going soft on you, did you? For all the well-crafted romance movies I liked, I enjoy a good ass-kicking action movie even more. And for a long time we haven't had as thoroughly enjoyable, kick-punchingly brutal, explosion- and body-count heavy and crucially, totally non-ironic, earnest action film as The Raid. It figures it couldn't have been made straight-out in Hollywood, but rather in Indonesia. Going to South-East Asia to shoot the wildest action scenes imaginable has been an industry haystay from Corman's glory days onwards.

Dredd delivered another tough building-raid movie this year, but this one has a clear advantage on that. The geography and floor plan of the movie are more carefully thought-out, making the rise to the top advance more steadily and logically. At the same time different floors don't feel just like different stages of a video game, but people get thrown from windows and switch floors by quick thinking. The whole thing is crowned with some truly brutal fighting choreography that utilizes the environment in an inventive way. And with the thin, bearded fellow Mad Dog, one of the year's best movie villains as well.

5. Killer Joe (USA)
Director: William Friedkin

Director William Friedkin didn't really make a comeback with this film since he hasn't really been anywhere. Viewing 2006's Bug recently, also based on Tracy Letts's play, made me realize how good his films have still been but no one has taken notice. Well, Friedkin now forced people to take notice, by having Matthew McCounaghey deliver the iciest, evilest, but at the same time oddly logical and twisted morale-following character. Who would've thought that guy could deliver one of the performances of the year! Friedkin's film is wickedly mean, totally brutal, and very unforgiving for the stupidity of its central characters. It's truly devastating, and as a black comedy, not even too funny. It's a lot more complex than that. It could reasonably be called a satire on the American vanishing morales and takeover of greed. And it's a lot more sharp in this aspect than the disappointing Killing them Softly.

Back in August, I wrote:

The film has a down-to-earth aspect, yet some bizarrely delirious ideas, such as a pizza cook being the most notorious gangster boss of the town, or Juno Temple doing nude kung fu moves in the middle of the night for the hell of it. (...) Friedkin stages most of the conflict inside an extended trailer. The movie is at parts laugh-out-loud hilarious, at parts gut-wrenchingly vile and unrelenting. Friedkin hasn't eased his standards one bit while all these years have passed from his magnum opuses.

4. The Punk Syndrome (Kovasikajuttu, Finland)
Directors: Jukka Kärkkäinen, Jani-Petteri Passi

The year's Finnish film, bar none, is this optimistic documentary that follows Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, The Name Day, one of the top punk rock acts of our country. It just so happens that all the band members suffer from developmental disabilities. But they won't let their Syndromes slow them down. The band members quarrel, rebel and go on their daily lives openly in front of the camera. Never apologising, feeling inferior or pandered, the film teaches new ways on how to view the disabled. And it rocks, too!

Back in March, I wrote:
The film raises some questions about how the society treats the handicapped, but it isn't preachy and doesn't rub the viewer's face with them. One also gets a few good laughs at the silly stuff the punk rockers are up to, such as the race Kari loses when he drops his pants, or when the group gets a little too excited with the strip club windows in Hamburg's Reeperbahn. (...) The spotlight is kept promptly on the band, and rightfully so. They are people to easily identify with, to laugh and cry with. The biggest strength of the film is the same as with the band: it feels very real, as opposed to staged. It's a real slice of life with its ups and downs, highs and lows.

3. Carnage (France/Germany/Poland/Spain)
Director: Roman Polanski

For my money, the funniest film of the year. It's another play-based film, and another that takes place solely in a closed environment. Just like the bourgeois in Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, the rich couple of Cowans (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) seem unable to leave the apartment of The Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). They have to come to terms with a schoolyard incident of their children, when one child has hit another with a stick. Turns out, the adults are a lot more savage than to just settle in using sticks as weapons. Closed inside, even the similar-minded people come at each other's throats. At the same time their carefully-constructed images begin to fall apart, so they form unions against each others in an attempt to win moral superiority against each other. The nasty, assholish personalities on display here are perfectly acted.

It's not too far-fetched to see the film as Polanski's own comment on his recent house arrest in Switzerland, waiting for trial. As tensions build and no one is willing to take responsibility, the worst in people comes out. The film's cynical look at human nature married to the fact that it has the most hilarious vomiting scene I've seen in a long while had me howling with laughter. A true gem, and the best Polanski in a long while.

2. The Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2: O InimigoAgora É Outro, Brazil)
Director: José Padilha

The best sequel of the year bar none, the follow-up to the toughest brazilian action film is the Godfather II for violent, political thrillers. It's cynical view sees Rio caught in a maelstrom of violence, with armed police strikes at the homes of the poor drug dealers solving little. The corruption that begins from the top has twisted the system so far, that it takes huge feats to be fixed ever again. During which a lot of innocent people are in the firing line. It's a huge, sprawling epic on the many forms corruption can take in a truly rotten society. Back in January, I wrote:
As it is, the film follows a large number of characters, each representing a layer of the society and/or a level of corruption. Although all of their approaches to corruption are cynically viewed as unfunctional, the characters aren't all clearly set to be only right or wrong. Some of their ideas don't work in practice but some do. Most of the film's characters are three-dimensional, with also ulterior motives regardless of their political alignment.  The main focus is in Nascimento, who while still maintaining some of his moral complexity, also comes into his own terms as a character here. Nascimento starts to feel old and weary by the end of the film, and loses some of his will to fight wrongs. Surprisingly, he has a strong end speech about the human values, and he also sees some error on his own ways. He sees that weeding out upper-level corruption would have helped his cause a lot more than shooting poor people in slums, but by now it is already too late. 

1. Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy (UK/France/Germany)
Director: Thomas Alfredson

Another epic that depicts the tentacles of corruption tighten up their grip on the pillars of society. It took me two viewings to truly get into the film's carefully-constructed web of lies and the number of elements in its vast storytelling. After that I read the novel, which was even more complicated. But each viewing or reading rewarded me handsomely with some new layers in this story. It is, by far the most rewarding film of the year.

The spies, depicted here as clerks, pencil-pushers and grey officials, are so far up their own game that they can't function without playing the cat-and-mouse game at all times. The mixture of family life and high-espionage blinds George Smiley (Gary Oldman) so much he is having trouble doing his daily work. Even the tiniest shred of trust has to be built and built for years on end. When even that comes shatteringly down, it feels devastating. Back in February, I wrote:

The film's aesthetic is such that it's easy to find oneself lost on its world. Even the smallest details are made important, and the film's rainy cinematography and 70's design aesthetics are well-realized enough to get the viewer easily lost among them. The real treat here are the performances. As good as Gary Oldman is (and he's really, really good.), the whole film is an ensemble piece, starring a cast of the best British talent to die for. With Oldman and Hurt, there's also great performances Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds. One feels that these actors actually inhabit the jobs of their characters and have actually been spying on us with their other film roles. One does get a paranoid feeling from out of all this, but I would've still wanted to see the film again as soon as I walked out of the theatre.

I'm looking forward in seeing the upcoming follow-up, based on another John Le Carré novel. That's the first recap of the year, next up is a look at the films of 2013.

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